A Dream Deferred

Illustration depicting the Freedmen's Bureau's role of mediating between former slaves and the whites
Illustration depicting the Freedmen's Bureau's role of mediating between former slaves and the whites (A.r. Waud/harper's Weekly)
Reviewed by Heather Cox Richardson
Sunday, March 5, 2006


The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction

By Eric Foner

Knopf. 268 pp. $27.50

In the first half of the 20th century, white Americans remembered the chaotic decades after the Civil War as a "tragic era" when bestial ex-slaves ruled a prostrated white race, throwing noble white leaders out of government, stealing public funds that black legislators extracted through exorbitant taxation, and assaulting innocent white girls. After seeing D.W. Griffith's 1915 film "The Birth of a Nation," which championed gallant Ku Klux Klansmen for upholding civilization against criminal blacks, President Woodrow Wilson is said to have remarked of the film, "My only regret is that it is all terribly true." White Americans embraced this racist history to justify overwhelming discrimination and violence against African Americans.

Forever Free is the culmination of 50 years of attacks on this specious version of Reconstruction and should finally lay to rest whatever remnants of this view still remain. During the civil rights movement, historians reexamining the post-Civil War years concluded that the terrible truth of the era was actually that Americans had reversed the heroes and villains. Combing the historical record, scholars discovered that black legislators never controlled Southern state governments, that postwar taxes paid for the region's first public schools and that black men were typically accused of rape only after they already had been lynched. Southern African Americans themselves gradually came into focus; they were hard workers chiseled out of their wages, they were family men and women trying to create a world where their children would have opportunities, and they were victims of the Klan. Many white Southerners underwent their own transformation in these years, exposed as terrorists who cheated workers and then killed those who protested, ultimately turning to a campaign of lynching and legalized segregation to reinstate white racial superiority over their black neighbors.

In Forever Free , the prizewinning Columbia historian Eric Foner (along with the media scholar Joshua Brown, who edited and annotated the book's many illustrations) summarizes these studies, breaking little new ground but presenting a highly readable story of black Americans' ongoing heroic struggle for freedom in a racist white society. Here black Union soldiers claim manhood as they fight for emancipation, and freedmen demand economic and political rights during the complicated politics of the late 1860s. Some eventually become successful entrepreneurs or prominent politicians. Gradually, though, black gains recede after 1870 as racist whites regain control. By the turn of the century, black Americans still occupy the bottom tier of a racialized nation, repressed into subservience when they try to exercise economic or political rights.

Interspersed between Foner's chapters, Brown's engaging essays investigate the meaning of 19th-century racial drawings, cartoons and photographs, celebrating the courageous attempt of black Americans to control their images in a nation that loved black caricature. In a final, eloquent chapter on the 20th century, Foner demands that the nation address its long repression of African Americans and insists that the quest to establish racial equality remains unfinished.

Forever Free counters old-fashioned histories of Reconstruction more effectively than it explains the era itself. The image of a handful of black freedom fighters standing against a unified nation of white oppressors obscures the true diversity of the postwar struggle for equality. Women, American Indians, Chinese, Irish, Southern European and Mexican immigrants -- as well as wage laborers -- were all trying to negotiate a new kind of freedom in the wake of the Civil War. Like African Americans, these groups were often cruelly caricatured and suffered political and economic oppression as well as physical violence. Like black Americans, they fought to define what American freedom should mean, were often disappointed by society and sometimes died for their beliefs. Their presence in the Reconstruction struggle challenges Forever Free 's contention that white racism alone determined the course of the nation. If racism was the defining feature of the nation, why was the 15th Amendment guaranteeing black suffrage ratified 50 years before the 19th Amendment establishing women's suffrage?

The answer is that the fortunes of different groups shifted as various interests fought for control of postwar America. But Forever Free is curiously quiet about political competition and the class tensions that drove it. It suggests that whites and blacks fought over suffrage without reference to political policies. In fact, white opponents of black suffrage hammered on the idea that black voters would support politicians who promised welfare legislation, paid for by taxes levied on propertied whites. When this idea took hold during economic downturns, suffrage became limited to those perceived to be supporters of conservative regimes -- usually (but not always) white men. Increasingly, powerful Americans embraced the idea that those who did not own taxable property should not decide how tax money was spent. By 1900, voting restrictions across the nation kept poor Americans, black and white alike, away from the polls. By the 20th century, political invective about tax reform had turned certain groups of white Americans into killers who found it entertaining to lynch the black men they thought threatened their own prosperity.

The story recounted in Forever Free is heroic and beautifully told, but ultimately it is too simple for today's America. Foner offers a tutorial in racism and seeks to illuminate current debates over affirmative action and reparations by suggesting that racial equality cannot be realized until entrenched white racism is addressed. But the events of the Reconstruction period illuminate a larger national struggle over who should have a say in government when voting determines how tax dollars are spent. That 19th-century demands for tax reform blossomed into festive 20th-century gatherings where black people were lynched seems a perilous lesson for today's Americans to ignore. ยท

Heather Cox Richardson is an associate professor of history at the Univ. of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of "The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901."

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